Victoria Byron speaks to Picture Book Snob
Originally from Yorkshire, Victoria Byron lives in Exeter with her husband, their two children and a dog called Roo. She was an art teacher before obtaining an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art, in 2013 and becoming a full-time illustrator.
Victoria has always loved storytelling and her childhood was spent drawing and playing outside. Her work is strongly influenced by the beauty of the natural world.
Victoria recently had a solo exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, promoting Alfie’s Night Out. She was the winner of a Voices of Future Generations Children's Book Illustration Award in 2016. Tamlin's Great Adventure is the first picture book Victoria has written as well as illustrated.
Tamlin is a little horse with big dreams who travels the world while also exploring whether the grass really is "greener on the other side." We LOVE this book and Tamlin is an endearing character who runs away with readers' hearts. Victoria recently spoke to Picture Book Snob about her work and the inspiration behind Tamlin's Great Adventure...
Have you always wanted to write books?
To be honest, I always thought of myself as an illustrator rather than a writer, but as a child I loved writing stories and making up plays. I was lucky enough to go to a primary school where we were allowed a lot of creative freedom in the classroom. We were allowed to let our imaginations run wild in our stories which was a lot of fun.
Have you always been an artist?
I think so, yes. Art is definitely a part of my identity and I come from a creative family. I drew a lot as a child and remember painting an orange kangaroo at school which went on display which made me very proud! I did a fine art degree and became an art teacher for 12 years, before deciding to do an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art in 2010.
How did you get the idea for Tamlin’s Great Adventure?
It all started as an idea about a cow and sparrow, with the sparrow rescuing the cow from his muddy field and taking him around the world. The idea came from a very sad folk song about a poor calf bound for market. Along the way the cow turned into a horse and so Tamlin was born.
Are you as well-travelled as Tamlin?
Not really, in fact I am a bit jealous of Tamlin! I have been lucky enough to visit a few places, which have special memories - magnificent mosques in Istanbul, fabulous Rocky Mountains in Canada, and Italy with its incredible historical buildings. I remember the first view of Venice made my family gasp with its beauty.
Did you base Tamlin on a real horse?
I live in Devon and when walking on Dartmoor there are often wild ponies on the moors. They are quite small and cute and one in particular stood out as a great character for a story. I’m actually a little bit nervous of horses but have always loved the idea of owning a horse and riding across open fields.
Recently I found some old drawings from my childhood and amongst them was this drawing of a horse and girl. It was part of a letter that I wrote to my grandmother which I don’t remember drawing but maybe it was in my subconscious mind when I wrote Tamlin's Great Adventure? Who knows?
Did you study real horses before drawing Tamlin?
Yes, I took my sketchbook out to a field and quickly scribbled down the horses as they were moving around - drawing them from different angles. Horse’s legs are really hard to draw, so it took me ages to work out what they looked like. It really helped me when it came to drawing Tamlin.
How do you create your illustrations – what media do you use?
I use mixed media. I draw, paint, print, stencil and collage, and then somehow manage to put it all together in Photoshop. It’s quite a chaotic process really! My mum recently bought me an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil which has made a big difference. Before that I spent hours scanning tissue paper and small sketches into Photoshop.
Are you working on anything else at the moment and can you tell us about it?
I’m working on another story about a little boy who has an adventure. I do like adventures!
How long does a project usually take from that first idea to completion?
About six months is the usual time for a picture book, but it can often take a lot longer. Picture books tend to be limited to 32 pages, so it can feel like working out a logistical puzzle; how to pare down the words, which bits to cut out and which bits to leave in.
What’s the strangest/funniest/most unexpected thing that’s happened to you during your career as an author and illustrator (besides a pandemic!)?
It’s a bit of a lonely life being an illustrator to be honest and the days tend to blur into one. When I was a teacher there were no end of funny things happening - too many to recount! I think the nicest thing about doing an MA in illustration was having lecturers from famous illustrators, such as Martin Salisbury, Pam Smy, Quentin Blake, Axel Scheffler and Alexis Deacon.
How does it feel to see your work in a bookshop or library?
It’s such a great feeling but what is even better is meeting a child who loves the story, and then it really does make the whole thing worthwhile.
You must have gotten lots of comments from children on your work. What's the loveliest or most rewarding remark that a young reader has made? The nicest thing was when I had an exhibition at the local museum based around my first book Alfie’s Night Out. A little boy had wanted to come back and see the exhibition every day, and his mum had bought him the book. When I said ‘Hello’ he just jumped up and down with excitement and that’s when I knew that real children would enjoy the story.
What is your favourite thing about being a writer/illustrator?
Creative freedom. I feel so lucky to be able to do the thing I enjoy most in the world.
What were your favourite books when you were younger?
The first book I loved was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle - I remember being mesmerised by the colours and fascinated by the tiny holes punched through the pages. My favourite ever children’s book is Stig of the Dump by Clive King, which was read to us by our teacher at Primary school. Every day we had half an hour story time which was the highlight of the day.
Are you influenced by anyone in particular – who are your favourite children’s writers and illustrators?
There are so many talented children’s writers and illustrators. I can’t name them all. The other students on my MA were a great influence and it has been lovely to see their books develop from ideas - Victoria Turnbull’s The Sea Tiger, Jemima Sharpe’s Mr. Moon Wakes Up, Steve Anthony’s Please Mr. Panda, Daisy Hirst’s I do not Like Books Anymore, Elena Melville’s Umbrella, Suzanne Barton’s Dawn Chorus and Johanna Fernihough’s The Crow and the Peacock to name but a few. Another local author/illustrator whose work I greatly admire is Richard Jones, whose work has a real magical quality.
What are/were your favourite books to read with your own children?
I think it’s harder for this generation of children as there are so many other distractions with technology to leave them space to daydream, read, draw and play. My son and daughter are young adults now, but when they were young, I always read to them at bedtime and I hope I’ve passed on to them a love of books. Favourites were classics such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Ant and Bee by Angela Banner, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and the Richard Scarry books with all the great intricate machinery.
Does your family give you feedback on your books during the writing and illustrating process, or do you prefer not to show your work to anyone until it’s finished?
I like to have my family’s feedback as it feels a safe place to get advice and I trust their opinions. My husband comes home from work and I bombard him with questions such as “Do you think this colour works best?” before he can sit down. Once the family think it’s okay then I feel happy about showing it to the outside world.
When you are working on a book, which comes first, the images or the words?
The images usually. I might doodle a little figure which gives me the idea for a story. It’s a bit of a back-and-forth process - sometimes changing the words to fit the pictures, or vice versa. I like to use alliteration or some sort of rhythm in the writing so it’s fun to read aloud, e.g. ‘Tamlin jogging through a jabbering jungle’.
Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere! I’m always looking out for inspiration. A lot of my ideas have a starting point in nature - someone feeding ducks, a lovely tree or a kite flying on the horizon. I have to be relaxed for ideas to come, so something might occur sitting in a sunny pub garden when least expected. I am very good at ideas but the hard part for me is pinning them down into some sort of structure.
How did you think of Tamlin’s name, was it something you had right from the start? Was he nearly called anything else?
The characters were just called ‘Horse’ and ‘girl’ for ages. I kept trying different names and nothing stuck until I heard the name Tam Lin in a Scottish ballad and it just seemed to suit him. The character of Ruby took longer - I called her Rosie for a while, due to her Rosy cheeks. It was almost as hard as choosing names for my own children!
When you’re working on your illustrations do you draw several different sketches before deciding what to develop? Do you use storyboards? Tell us a bit about your creative process.
I use a little template to fit the story into 32 pages, then do a more detailed storyboard, thinking about the overall design of the pages and then some character studies. I am very impatient and want to start on the fun details without thinking though the overall story. I have a very harsh inner critic which can stop me achieving anything so, sometimes, I just have let myself draw anything freely, without thinking too much, and choose a separate time to evaluate.
Have you any advice for authors and/or illustrators who are just starting out, or those who have always dreamed of writing a book but haven’t managed to do it yet?
Write from the heart about things that matter to you but at the same read lots of current books for inspiration. You can break the rules, but you have to know what the rules are! Once it is written, the hardest job is getting it seen and published. Keep trying, and if you get any interest, never give up.
Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob, is there anything you’re snobby about?
I’m snobby about films. If my kids get an action film with lots of special effects and explosions, I usually fall asleep or sneak away upstairs as I find them so boring. Anything arty with subtitles appeals. They think I’m very strange!